Leaving Cert grading meltdown shows why open source is top of the class

5 Oct 2020

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The Leaving Cert grading catastrophe is a great argument for open-source approaches to code for public use, writes Elaine Burke.

Investor and Irish tech veteran Brian Caulfield neatly summarised what many know to be true when it comes to delivering on a project. “You can optimise for two of time, cost and quality. Never all three,” he told Adrian Weckler in the Irish Independent, deftly explaining what went wrong with the Leaving Cert grading.

The Government was under time pressure to deliver a fair and effective solution for Leaving Cert grading in the absence of exams this year due to Covid-19. Now, the results are in. Perhaps not an abject failure but certainly Minister for Education Norma Foley, TD, and her department didn’t meet the grade.

Like the students who only start to cram in the studying after the mocks and mid-term break, the Government may have waited too long to take the task ahead seriously. There may have been a ‘wait and see’ tactic in place, keeping an eye on how our neighbours in the UK got on with the A Levels. And when that descended into chaos, there was no tried and tested path to follow. The Irish Government was on its own to come up with something that would work for students nationwide.

But Government officials didn’t have to work in isolation. In fact, that was the choice that led to their undoing. They should have considered group study, which might have helped them improve their results.

‘When it comes to projects of such significance to the public, open source should be the default’

Thankfully, after the A Levels disaster, the Irish Government opted for a system that would potentially put greater pressure on university placements but cause less heartache for students. That is, the Leaving Cert grading code would likely result in grade inflation compared to standard testing years, but that was the hit worth taking.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only problematic outcome. A retrospective analysis of the code already deployed found a number of errors affecting the entirety of 2020’s Leaving Cert grading. To be fair to students who were already through two rounds of university placement offers and awaiting the third at this point, none would be downgraded. However, more than 6,000 would be upgraded, further adding to the pressure on institutions to make accommodations.

The gold standard

Going back to Caulfield’s point, you can see which of the three factors the Government lost marks on. The quality of the Leaving Cert grading system was sacrificed by the time restrictions. Clearly, the analysis that has turned up the errors should have been done beforehand, but the country was on a national deadline.

But there’s another line of advice for project delivery the Government should have kept in mind: many hands make light work. If the Government hadn’t been so secretive about the Leaving Cert grading system it was working on, all sorts of experts would have been able to review the code and spot errors the assigned team simply didn’t have time to.

In fact, when it comes to projects of such significance to the public, open source should be the default. Not going open source with the Leaving Cert grading code was a missed opportunity for the Government to get support from the tech community at large for a project of national importance. Deciding to develop behind closed doors has helped no one and led to failure.

And Foley’s department has no excuse in ignorance, as we have seen how coding for the public can be greatly successful thanks to open-source software. The Covid Tracker Ireland app was developed in the open and so many concerns about tracing, privacy and efficacy were addressed in good time. The result of this open collaboration was an app that was largely accepted by groups not often in agreement on such things.

Now, under the project name Covid Green, the source code of the Irish Covid-19 contact-tracing app has been made available for other public health authorities and their developers across the world to use and customise. The Waterford-based company behind it, NearForm, manages the source code repository on GitHub and this has been used to roll out apps in a number of countries and regions so far.

This was an incredible success of open-source software development for the public good, with an Irish company’s work being held up as something of a gold standard around the world. And for some reason the Irish Government ignored that signal and did what public bodies tend to do with their decision-making: shroud it in secrecy and hope for the best.

Let’s just hope the Leaving Cert grading disaster will be a lesson learned and that the Government can see the clear benefits for open-source development of public projects in the future. In fact, they can even join us at Future Human to learn more about open source from none other than NearForm founder Cian Ó Maidín.

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Future Human is Silicon Republic’s international sci-tech event focusing on the future of work, climate change, AI, security, robotics and life sciences. On 29 and 30 October 2020, it will take place as the first major hybrid tech event of its kind in the world. General, Executive and Student tickets are available now.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.